The Best Teachers Flip the Script

Appreciation of Our Teachers and Ideas for Parents

I recall being shocked when my high school art teacher – instead of standing over me – came around my desk, sat down next to me and positioned her head over my paper looking at the still life we were drawing from my perspective. She proceeded to show me new ways to see what I was looking at. “See that curve,” she said. “Notice how it imperfectly swings left and right in a slight and subtle way at the end. How can you follow that line with your pencil?” And my vision changed. I started seeing more detail than I had before. I watched her eyes as they glanced back and forth between the paper and the still life in a fluid pendulum motion. That moment changed my drawing forever and also, my understanding of teaching and learning. She placed herself directly in my line of vision. She tried to experience what I was experiencing in that lesson. And her attempt to experience the learning through my eyes taught me so much more than any lecture I ever attended.

Who were your best teachers and what might you call out as the central reason for their ability to impact you and your learning?

I have found in reflecting on my own best teachers, in having worked with and observed many educators in the classroom and also watched the experiences of my son, it is those teachers who focus on learning about their learners who are the most impactful. 

The best teachers become students of their learners.

These teachers are most interested in:

– how their students learn best knowing that each individual learns in different ways;

– what their students love and are passionate about;

– what motivates their students;

– the perspectives – thoughts and feelings of their learners;

– what students are working on developmentally – physically, socially, emotionally and 

academically; and

–  what students’ experiences are in family and community life that directly impact their 


All this care and interest in an individual student’s learning translates into a caring relationship between the teacher and student. Whereas before a student may have felt lost in a sea of fish swimming in the same direction (though knowing deep down their own uniqueness), they now experience someone who is not only noticing them but taking time to get to know them – to see, understand and value their contributions to the learning process.

This year, I witnessed my son becoming deeply engaged in one of his least favorite subjects – World History and building expertise in an historical influencer who challenges even the best readers, literary analysts and orators – William Shakespeare. This World History teacher used at least two different ways of positioning himself as the learner and the students as the teachers.

  1. The Teach Back. Students in that class were given the chance to teach a whole unit with many complex events, dates and characters to their teacher by collaborating together and figuring how they might best teach the content. This “teach back” method is one in which the learner has to take charge of the learning and represent it to others in ways that are accessible and memorable. The students co-created a whole class script. Each had parts to represent different events or characters in history while a narrator cracked funny jokes to introduce each section (mimicking their teacher’s style of teaching). Were you ever put in a position of teaching content as a student? How did it impact your learning? As a parent, have you asked your child to teach something to you (technology is an ideal example of an area where our children may have more expertise than we do!) and how did it go? Did you sense your child felt seen, heard, valued and empowered by the experience?
  1. Empathy. Students were also given the task of selecting an historical character to play all semester and they emailed other historical characters (college students in history classes at the University of Michigan) where they had to deeply know their character’s background in order to play their roles. Because of the length of time and depth of the project, not only did students learn to empathize with their historical figure but the teacher grew to better know, appreciate, understand and value his students as they were called upon to share their own opinions, reflections and applications for lessons in today’s world.  How have your best teachers developed your empathy for others and in doing so, also deepened their empathy for you? As a parent, how do you look for ways to deepen your empathy for your child as well as offering more vulnerable moments for them to gain deeper insights into your own thoughts and feelings?

“No significant learning begins without a significant relationship,” stated James Comer of the Yale Child Study Center. So how is that significant relationship created? We know that any significant relationship requires time, patience, a willingness and curiosity to explore, understand and value one another. It takes seeing and elevating strengths and accepting challenges or “quirks” as part of the uniqueness of individuals. Ultimately, great teachers love to learn and love to share in that learning with others.

This Teacher Appreciation Week, how can you recognize what makes your child’s teacher a unique contributor to his or her learning? And what lessons from our great teachers can we learn as parents as we attempt to support our children’s learning? How can we flip the script?

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